WSIRN Ep 201: The hidden value of a terrible reading experience

When you are totally hating a reading experience do you…

A) keep reading, or

B) leave that book in the dust and move on to something more enjoyable?

Today, Brian Eichenberger and I are diving straight into this hotly debated issue, discussing horrible books that taught us lessons we still think about allllll the time. Brian is the kind of reader who wants to chew on big ideas, follow characters from childhood to old age to see what makes people tick, and who loves big juicy family sagas. But he also has a taste for the unusual, so I’ll be recommending 3 titles that hopefully hit more than one target.

Let’s get to it!

What Should I Read Next #201: The hidden value of a terrible reading experience

You can follow Brian Eichenberger on Twitter, and check out his podcast Story Guys on their website or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Click here to read the full episode transcription (opens in a new tab).

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If you didn’t catch our producer Brenna’s Instagram takeover last week be sure to check out the highlights as she did a listener Q&A that gives you a fun look at how each episode comes together.

Books mentioned in this episode:

Some links are affiliate links. More details here. If you’d like to support your local indie, check out And by all means, go grab one of these from your local library!

Books mentioned:

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
Milkman, by Anna Burns
The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris
Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender
An Invisible Sign of My Own, by Aimee Bender
The Hike, by Drew Magary
The Last Romantics, by Tara Conklin
The Children’s Crusade, by Ann Packer
Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett
The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin
The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
The World According to Garp, by John Irving
Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson
Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson
The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett
The Ensemble, by Aja Gabel

Also mentioned:

● Anne in conversation with Celeste Ng on Patreon
You Can Count On Me (movie)


Leave A Comment
  1. Brynne Monier says:

    I wanted to recommend a book to Brian, it’s called Family of Origin. By CJ Hauser. It is about 2 siblings and a dysfunctional family. I loved it. It sounds like it might be in your wheelhouse!

  2. Emily says:

    Hello I enjoyed this episode! Wanted to drop in with some recs that I’m sure you’ve heard before but I really think would suit your tastes.

    East of Eden, A Little Life (if you’re in the mood for something quite long and particularly sad), and The Goldfinch (I know this is mentioned in the episode but adding it here for extra emphasis 🙂 )

  3. What a great episode! Brian’s tastes closely match my own. However, I LOVED The Shipping News!! (Though, I’ve never read Garp… maybe I should, now?)

    Also, I, too, am a “finisher” of books. It’s VERY rare that I give up on a title because I’m always holding out until the bitter end that something happens to change my mind. This phenomenon has happened just enough times that I’m hopelessly hopeful. I think it must be a bit like gambling. You just need a few wins to keep the game going.

    Okay, so I have a recommendation that I’ve been telling EVERYONE about and I’m baffled that no one is reading it.

    Brian, PLEASE read The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia. It is SO good. It’s about a newborn baby boy with some physical deformities who is abandoned in 1920’s Mexico (see: Spanish Influenza and Mexican Revolution). He’s discovered by a wealthy farming family covered in bees, though the insects don’t harm him. The family takes the boy in despite the community’s fear that he’s cursed. He has physical limitations but those are far exceeded by some seriously impressive abilities and the bees that accompany him his whole life. This is a SWEEPING familiy saga, filled with oddities and the ending is WOW, WOW, WOW. I seriously SOBBED into this book – happy tears.

    My last recommendation is risky because I haven’t actually read the book. But, I bought it so I think that counts for something. It’s called River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey. This is a western with HIPPOS. Yes, hippos. Basically, in the early 20th century, the American government seriously debated importing hippos to live in the swamplands of America as an alternative meat source. This is actually very true. The book imagines what life would have been like if that plan had actually worked and America becomes overrun by hippos, which – as we know – are actually quite savage.

    I’m REALLY looking forward to reading it.

    Hope you enjoy!

    PS – Ironically, The Ensemble was one of the RARE books that I abandoned. I was just so very bored. 🙁 I hope you don’t share my experience.

  4. Jessie Weaver says:

    I haven’t heard Anne’s recommendations yet, so I’m probaly going to come back and comment more. But this episode is totally baffling me. Ha! I was all YES YES because I love big family sagas, I love magical realism, I loved Little Fires Everywhere.
    But I hated The Goldfinch. I hated Lemon Cake. I really didn’t like The Interestings.
    So interesting to me how these interests can align but I guess the feel of the books we like is different.
    I usually toss aside books I’m not caring about, but I just finished The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See. It was SO SAD, but it’s also about a period of time in Korea that I knew absolutely zero about, so I learned a lot. I didn’t feel like the fiction story in it was super compelling, but the historical part was fascinating, so I finished it. So I could understand that whole conversation.

    • Jessie Weaver says:

      I love the recommendations! Here’s mine: Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington. It’s a story about two brothers, it takes place in the 70s and 80s and follows them over a long while, and it’s just a darn interesting tale.

  5. Pam Spicer says:

    I’ve just started the podcast and heard you mention that you didn’t like The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Here’s a non-fiction (that reads like fiction) with the same setting! Really interesting true stories.
    Gottland: Mostly True Stories From Half of Czechoslovakia by Mariusz Szczygiel. I just finished it today and really enjoyed it and learned a lot!

  6. Elise says:

    What a fun episode! I found myself nodding along in agreement much of the time – which is funny, because I LOVED both Garp and Goon Squad. So we may not be book twins, but I thought Brian’s insights into books and reading were fantastic. I especially loved his comments about magical realism and sibling stories. Lots of great books to consider.

  7. BarbN says:

    Great episode, I really loved Brian’s enthusiasm. I totally agree about Updike’s novels- in fact, I’ve never been able to get through one. But his short stories are an whole different thing and they are *amazing.*. Especially the early ones, try the collection Olinger Stories. Also want to recommend Life after Life by Kate Atkinson which ticks off the magical realism and (especially) sibling boxes.

  8. Rosie says:

    Listening to Brian talk about books (and his laugh at the description of the Kevin Wilson book premise) had me smiling from ear to ear.
    For his first Wally Lamb book, as he mentioned Lamb is on the list of authors he wants to read, I would recommend I Know This Much is True. The central relationship focuses on twin brothers. I also love the opening line: “On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable.”

  9. Dora says:

    I wanted to recommend Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. This is a family through the years with a touch of magic realism. It also focuses on sibling relationships, which was mentioned in the episode as something lacking in a lot of these books. I really loved the book and hope Brian checks it out.

  10. Rosie says:

    One more recommendation: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai for found family + a detailed look at people’s lives and how/why they are the way that they are. It also has a character that I cared about in a way that I haven’t cared about a fictional character in quite a while!

  11. Gretchen says:

    You might try The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo, which is a story about a family of four daughters and their parents. No magical realism, but beautifully written and insightful about sisterly relationships, parenting and familial relationships over the decades. Generally warm-spirited and positive about families over the years.

    For me, it’s a bit of a stretch to think of The Ensemble as a family book, but the book describes the life of a musician, playing music in a quartet, so perfectly.

    • S says:

      I just finished this one and was going to recommend it since Brian enjoyed The Last Romantics. A Place for Us is a gorgeous family story as well.

  12. Erin in CA says:

    I gasped out loud and laughed when Brian mentioned The Particular Sadness. Our book club read it when it came out years ago. And … we HATED it. I really was intrigued by the premise, but when it came to the brother, she totally lost us. Nope. Just too much. (And no, unfortunately, it is not a book I hated but think about all the time.) While we are clearly not book twins, I do wonder if Brian has ever read The Golem and the Jinni? When it comes to magical realism, I think that book is a masterpiece.

  13. Suzanne says:

    I also had to laugh when Brian mentioned The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. It didn’t really do that much for me, and I don’t really think about it in my everyday life. On the other hand, one of my all time favorites is a book that has a similar premise but goes in quite a different direction. That’s Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. The young woman in the story can’t marry the man she loves because her mother expects her to stay home and care for her, so he marries her sister in order to be near her. When she has to make the wedding cake, her tears fall in the batter and the guests feel her unhappiness. And it goes on from there to other situations and meals. I think Brian would like the tweak to reality theme and strong family drama. There’s also a very faithful movie adaptation.

  14. Melanie says:

    I really want to know the other book Ann almost recommended! The one set in New York that follows a family lineage. That sounds like it might be right up my alley!

  15. Brooke says:

    This was such a fun conversation, mostly because of Brian’s contagious enthusiasm! I’d love to recommend The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. This is hefty in both size and emotional resonance and it has one of the BEST threesome of siblings I’ve ever read!

  16. Laura says:

    Anne, I am so glad you recommended the Ensemble! The whole episode I was thinking about it since it really is a wide angle lens on a found family.
    Brian might also like Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan. It’s got the “everything is normal except for the one magical thing” concept, and it also spans a larger amount of time and has people brought together by unusual circumstances and characters developing. It’s a middle grade book, so maybe off the beaten path as far as genere. But this book is AMAZING on audio.

  17. Amanda Faulkner says:

    Please please please read South of Broad by Pat Conroy. It’s so beautifully done and follows a group of friends through a tumultuous time in the 80s. Set in Charleston and later in San Francisco, it’s so rich. I love it for reasons similar to those that made me love The Interestings. Also: The Secret History by Donna Tartt if you haven’t already read it.

    • Anne says:

      So interesting—I wouldn’t have thought Conroy would resemble Wolitzer! So glad you shared. I’ve never read that one myself, but I just picked up his memoir on the reading life from the library yesterday.

  18. Am I the only person who thought this guest sounded JUST like Seth Rogen!! Seriously!

    I’d echo another commenter who suggested “The Most Fun We Ever Had.” Great character-driven novel that follows a family through the years. I think your other recommendation was going to be “Ask Again, Yes”! That’s the other book I’d recommend for him! Such a great read – one of my best for 2019. Thanks to Anne for putting that on the SRG. Wouldn’t have read it otherwise!

    • Anne says:

      I just bumped The Most Fun We Ever Had to the top of my list after a gushing recommendation from a trusted reading friend.

      And funny you mention Seth Rogen: my friend Dave Harrity appeared on Episode 75, “What to read if google wrecked your brain,” and he looks so much like Seth Rogen that he gets stopped in airports for selfies. 🙂 I’ll let you be the judge of whether Dave sounds like Seth or not. Listen here:

      • Margaret says:

        I tried to read The most fun we ever had recently and could not get into it, but perhaps I wasn’t in the mood.
        I also wanted to say that I was so surprised when I saw Brian’s photo as I had pictured him as a much bigger heavyset kind of man. It didn’t occur to me until I read these comments that I was imagining him as similar in physique to Seth Rogen. How funny!

        • Anne says:

          Since I chatted with Brian, I started the Claire Lombardo book. I’m about a third of the way through and I’m still interested …. maybe it will pop up in a future edition of Quick Lit!

    • Megan says:

      You’re not alone! My daughter walked in while I was listening and asked if today’s guest was Seth Rogen. LOL
      I usually read to the end, but wish I had abandoned “The Immortalists”. Not for me.

  19. Maxine says:

    Loved the picks this week – totally up my alley! In terms of epic stories following characters over time, I would like to recommend J. Ryan Stradal’s books “Kitchens of the Great Midwest” and his newest “The Lager Queen of Minnesota.” Also, one of my all-time favorites, “The Imperfectionists” by Tom Rachman.

  20. Lucinda says:

    Brian and Anne, This was a fun episode. I have never heard of most of the books and authors you discussed, but I do have one thing in common with you, Brian, I don’t pay attention to user reviews or ratings either. I’m a book grazer, or as Anne calls us, an Explorer when it comes to reading. If I hear of a book mentioned more than once and it sounds interesting, I may read it. I read books that suit my mood.

    The one book I did not like, but got a great deal out of was *The Casual Vacancy* by J. K. Rowling. There were very few likable characters, it’s well written but bleak. However, it made me think much more deeply about poverty and it’s effects not only on individuals, but the community and wider society.

    Thanks for another great episode.

  21. Cindy says:

    I haven’t finished listening yet, but loved this episode. It is more attuned to my tastes than any other I have heard, which means – uh oh! – more books added to TBR. I am nodding happily along on my commute, though I do feel sorry for Anne, because I feel like she now wants to read all those books Brian mentions, including the ones she is half way through. I went straight out and bought ‘Little Fires’ even though I’m not through with the podcast. So thanks Anne, and Brian!

  22. Chelsea Hargroves says:

    I wonder if Brian would like “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” by John Boyne? It’s is one of my all-time favorites.

  23. Amanda Lamb says:

    You have to check out A Million Junes by Emily Henry!! It’s magical realism with family saga. I was skeptical at first, but I fell in love with it!

  24. Jane W says:

    I LOVED The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and have never known anyone else who has read it and so I yelled out loud when Brian mentioned it as one of his picks. In my “imaginary” WSIRN episode it has been one of my picks. I think about it a lot as a different way of considering food and the role of food and eating in our lives. Especially at the end when she’s just eating food out of vending machines so it doesn’t contain any emotion : <
    Thanks for a great episode and conversation…

  25. Amelia says:

    I really enjoyed the book conversation and definitely added to my tbr! I want to add A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki to this list of great recs. It’s weird and coming-of-age and intergenerational and I think Brian would like it!

  26. Carol E Shubin says:

    Great episode. Loved the discussion about finishing books. Although I thought my likes in books were much different than Brian, but i found myself putting ” The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and all three of your suggestions on my want to read list.
    I do have a suggestion for Brian. He might enjoy “Inland” by Tia Ohreht.
    I listened to it. It’s a beautifully written book with 2 parallel stories going and at the end they converge . It has both myth and family( traditional family and a man who has to make his family as he grows up).

  27. Jane Weichert says:

    I loved this episode. I loved all the books Brian mentioned. And have some new titles to try. I like magic realism. Just finished Harry’s Trees and wonder if he wouldn’t like that as well. I’m in love with that book. Exit West is one of my favorites. I liked Garp but read it years ago when it first came out. Am not sure I would still feel the same. My rereading recently of A Prayer for Owen Meany did not hold up so well.

  28. Marie-France Brunet says:

    I totally meant to comment on here last week when I listened to the podcast but I forgot until I realized I had a new episode to listen to!
    I really enjoyed this episode, added several of the books discussed as they sounded interesting.
    One of your recommendations to Brian (Nothing to See Here) made me think of another book I read that he might enjoy while waiting for that recommendation to be available– The Fireman by Joe Hill. Not quite as lighthearted as Nothing to See Here sounds like it is, but I personally found it to be an interesting story.

  29. Jeanna Brown says:

    I loved this episode, and I decided to read one of Brian’s recommendations: “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”. Dude, we need to talk! This is one strange book. Admittedly, it is my first Aimee Bender book, and that could be it. 🙂

  30. Mariandrea says:

    A Book Rec for Brian: All the Names They Used For God by Anjali Sachdeva. It is a collection of short stories featuring memorable characters in compelling situations with a thread of magic woven through the collection. I loved it and I enjoyed The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

  31. Graeme says:

    Here’s one more recommendation for Brian: Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon. It’s a coming-of-age story set in a small town in Alabama in the 1960s. I share Brian’s love of books that are mostly realistic, but which have elements of magical realism sprinkled in and this book is very much like that. It also has a mystery element to it.

    To me, this book captures the feeling of childhood summers in a way that is rare and beautiful. In my time working in libraries, this has so far been the book recommendation that was most well-received by a patron. After reading it, the man came back to the library, asked for me by name, shook my hand and told me how much he loved it, and said he had passed it on to several friends who also really liked it. It’s a good recommendation for anyone who enjoyed Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine or Something Wicked This Way Comes.

  32. Marlize says:

    I’ve recently joined the podcast and listen while I’m driving around for work (wine sales rep) and enjoy the distraction of good books whilst stuck in traffic.
    When listening to Brian explain his usual reading style, I remembered a series I just finished; The Cemetery of Forgotten Books by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
    It’s family saga, coming of age, and a touch of whimsy.
    It is one of my favourite series to date!!

  33. Jane says:

    I am halfway through The Hike after your recommendation. It is amazing! Thanks, Brian. I will now read your other two favorites as my next two reads! This book is making me stay up too late! I am also reading Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. I wonder if you’d like it. Happy reading!

  34. Marilyn Victor says:

    For me it’s not so much whether I’m enjoying the book, as whether or not the book is holding my interest. If it’s not holding my interest, there’s just no point to continue reading as I’m not absorbing anything. So I move on. But if it’s fiction, I always read the last chapter to see how it ends. I guess it gives me a feeling of completion without the pain of reading the entire book.

  35. Lennette Daniels says:

    I really loved Brian’ comment about siblings being the only person who has the same starting line. I shared it with my siblings. I also wanted to recommend Wrapped in Rain by Charles Martin. It is a great story about siblings.

    • Anne says:

      Thanks for the recommendation! (If you haven’t yet listened to our episode with Annie Downs, called “Reading for the FUN of it,” I think you’ll enjoy hearing her profess her love for Charles Martin novels. 🙂

  36. Peggy Coffey says:

    I absolutely hated Garp’ actually anything by Irving. This is the first episode of this podcast that I have read most of the books and didn’t like any of the. I do not finish a book I hate, so these were all donated. I hope someone will enjoy them.

  37. Jane says:

    Anne, please please please tell me what book about a family saga in NYC you were going to recommend instead of The Ensemble!

  38. Ginger says:

    On the magical realism front, I came here to recommend All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater. I just listened to it on audio, and I really enjoyed it (Anne, this was from your Audio SYNC recommendation earlier this year). I think I might have enjoyed reading a physical copy more, not because of any weakness with the audio, but because it’s got some great imagery that I would have liked to have sunk into more instead of trying to focus on it while I was driving; but in any format, I’d recommend it. It maybe goes a little further with the level of believable magic than what Brian mentioned enjoying—it’s about a family who can perform miracles, and one of the miracles is that people’s darkest fears manifest themselves physically (which is not as terrifying as it sounds)—but it definitely popped into my mind as something he might enjoy.

  39. Jeff Culverhouse says:

    Once again I find myself recommending _The Pillars of the Earth_ by Ken Follett. I bet you’ve read it already, but I couldn’t resist suggesting it, just in case!

  40. Sarah says:

    Read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake last week and gave it 5 * but keep mulling it over! Really interested to know what Brian’s thinking was about the brother depending on when he’d read it – wish l knew! Can’t quite wrap my head round it but l do enjoy that feeling.

  41. Leonor says:

    I heard this podcast around the time it came out a while a go and one of the guests choices stuck with me – The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. As reading life goes, I only got around it this week. And boy, what a treat! I loved it (even though I was not sure I would). If found so interesting the contrast between the magic bit versus the super mundane sadness all characters in this family suffer from. The young main character Rose is delightful.
    I understand this book is not for everyone but I still don’t think it deserves all the negative reviews it got on Goodreads.
    Thank you Anne for your amazing podcast!

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